Since vaulting to the top of the counts on Day 4, 24-year-old Joe McKeehen of North Wales, Pennsylvania, was a real contender to make the November Nine. With just under $2 million in tournament earnings entering the 2015 World Series of Poker Main Event, McKeehen is one of the most experienced players remaining.
McKeehen, a diehard Philadelphia Flyers fan, learned to play poker right around the 2003 poker boom after watching the game on TV. Although he wasn't legally old enough to play back then, McKeehen still dabbled online before paying a visit to Turning Stone Resort Casino once he turned 18. Then, when he was 20, McKeehen notched his first six-figure score when he won the $2,150 No-Limit Hold'em Turbo side event at the PokerStars Caribbean Adventure for $116,230.
Despite the score, McKeehen stayed in school at Arcadia University, a private university on the outskirts of Philadelphia, where he graduated with a math degree.
Last summer, this year's November Nine chip leader notched the biggest score of his career when he finished runner-up in Event #51: $1,500 Monster Stack for $820,863 at the WSOP.
"It's really cool," said McKeehen about being a part of the November Nine. "I've worked hard for it. To be here with a big chip lead, I'm very excited to come back for November and finish the job."
Before landing himself on poker's biggest stage, McKeehen was just a college kid with a dream. After he realized he was getting fairly good at the game, he decided to take the dive into the professional realm of poker playing.
"I got into poker watching it on TV and playing with friends," McKeehen said. "Over the years I thought I was getting better at the game, so I decided to become a professional. Fortunately, I had a decent amount of success early enough that it didn't deter me from giving up the dream. I got into the game seriously my freshman year of college, which was six years ago. I was playing online a lot and I started transitioning to live when I turned 21. I've been doing this for three years."
One can only imagine what it's like to go from a college kid with a dream to such massive success within a short period of time. Knowing McKeehen has been on the big stage before, specifically when making the final table of the Monster Stack event last WSOP, his experience will certainly come in handy. Combine that experience with the huge chip lead that he has, and there's little question as to who the favorite of this final table is.
It's McKeehen by a landslide.
"I'm going to relax," McKeehen said about the nearly four months he'll have off before the final table. "I wasn't even thinking ahead at all during the tournament. Now that I have four months, I'm definitely going to do some preparation. I'm going to study my opponents. I'm going to do a little bit of everything to make sure I'm sharp and ready to go by the time November rolls around. Since I've been playing for a long time, I've picked up on a lot of stuff that people who just jump into the game wouldn't."
That stuff he picks up on — the "live reads" — are only things that come with playing lots and lots of live poker, which McKeehen has done.
"This tournament, I think I picked up a lot of live reads on my opponents during the entire seven-day period," McKeehen said. "That helped me make a lot of decisions and build a big chip stack because most of them tended to be correct."
Along with trusting his reads, McKeehen looked towards the tournament's impressive structure that helped him amass so many chips. But, as in any poker tournament with long levels and deep play, it's easy to get impatient. That's something McKeehen recognized, though.
"This tournament is so incredibly deep, that it's so easy to get impatient in it," he said. "I've stayed focused because it's a long tournament. If I get impatient, I'm going to start playing sub-optimally. I don't necessarily agree that it's a cash game players' tournament. At the beginning, it might be. If cash game players aren't playing tournaments a lot — everyone in this tournament will get short at some point — if they don't know exactly what they're doing at that point, they're going to struggle and they can lose their tournament very easily. The tournament's so incredibly long that it's hard to stay at the top of the leaderboard the entire time. You're going to lose hands because of the variance of the game. You have to be prepared to get a little shorter and play the short stack as well as the big stack."
Fortunately, McKeehen doesn't have to deal with the added pressure of fighting with a short stack. He'll enter play on November 8 with 63.1 million in chips, or 158 big blinds. That's good enough to more than double his closest competitor, Ofer Zvi Stern in second place. Even with all the chips, there is still plenty of pressure to be had, as everyone will be zeroing in on McKeehen's ability to not blow it.
"All of the eyes are probably going to be on me, both because I eliminated Daniel Negreanu and because at the final two tables, I played maybe 75 percent of the hands," McKeehen recognized. "So, everyone's going to expect me to come in and fire and mix it up a lot. Whether I do that or not, I have no clue. I don't feel any extra pressure. If anything, I think the pressure's on everyone else. If I do lose a big pot, I'm probably still the chip leader. All I can do is focus on what I'm doing and try to stay in the moment.
"I'm going to come in and play a lot of pots if I get the correct situation to do so. Obviously, you have to play a little different nine-handed."
Speaking of Negreanu, he was the tournament's superhero, and so many were pulling for him to reach the November Nine. In the end, McKeehen was the one who stripped Negreanu of his powers and sent him to the rail in 11th place. In McKeehen's eyes, this could paint him as a bit of a bad guy to the audience.
"I would assume the public might see me as a little bit of a villain," he said. "I think we both played the hand fine, it just ran out in my favor. It's unfortunate for poker that [Negreanu's] not here with us, but I wasn't here to make friends. If they want to make me the villain, they can make me the villain. Hopefully by the end, they will like me a little more. I understand the backlash because Daniel was the favorite in the poker world to win the tournament. But, it is what it is."
McKeehen's massive chip lead came large in part to a huge set-over-set confrontation with Justin "Stealthmunk" Schwartz. McKeehen held the higher set and held to send Schwartz packing in 14th place.
"I went to dinner just stacking Justin and having all these chips," McKeehen remembered about the moments after winning that huge pot. "I talked to my buddy Calvin Anderson, and we were discussing my strategy. We definitely thought I should ramp it up but I shouldn't go overboard. At the beginning of the level, I went overboard a little bit to test whether it would work or not. It was working, so I just kept going. It's such a massive bubble for these guys, and they know any hand they play against me could be their last one. And the pay jumps are so enormous, nobody wants to be the one busting 12th, 11th, 10th. So, I tried to take advantage of that the best I could. The money is so significant to everybody, including myself. If I was in their position, I probably would have just kept folding, too, and letting me run them over. It would just be so unfortunate if I made a move and the big stack would have it."
With the lead he has built for himself, a lot of experience under his belt, and the momentum of having played great poker heading into the three-and-a-half-month hiatus, the tournament will be McKeehen's to lose come November.
Stay tuned to PokerNews as we follow McKeehen and the other 2015 November Niners leading up to the WSOP Main Event final table later this year.